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James Eccles, photo Michael Wholley, centre - Brian Howard, photo Victoria Owens, right - James Nightingale, courtesy the artist James Eccles, photo Michael Wholley, centre - Brian Howard, photo Victoria Owens, right - James Nightingale, courtesy the artist
Auroras are created by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms at high altitude in the atmosphere above the Earth. The aural equivalent will be generated by the Aurora Festival of Living Music with exciting new commissions, including the much anticipated premiere of a major work from Brian Howard, Voyage Through the Radiant Stars, and new works for a didjeridu duet and for Aurora Chorealis, a concert featuring Song Company and volunteer singers from across Western Sydney.

Violist and leader of The Noise improvising string quartet James Eccles has pretty much set aside his instrument for the time being to be artistic director of the 2014 Aurora Festival—applying for funding, commissioning, negotiating with arts centres, programming and sitting in on rehearsals, all in less than a year after the initial director had to step down. Eccles appears perfectly at home in the role and confident that, despite constraints, he’s come up with an exciting, focused festival, for the greater part devoted to Australian new music and its wonderful NSW exponents.

Eccles happily embraces the decision made when it was founded to establish the festival in Sydney’s west. “New music is generally thought of as something that only interests the inner city crowd,” he says, “but it happens in Western Sydney. The festival was set up by Matthew Hindson. He ran the first three biennial festivals and Andrew Batt-Rawden took over the next in 2012. Hindson thought that Sydney should have a festival devoted to new music, and it is the only one in Sydney, though it’s broader than that with elements of world music.” Indeed, Japanese and Australian noise music made a popular appearance in the 2012 festival.

“What I find interesting is that new music has a reputation for being difficult and catering to an exclusive clientele in the know. Putting it on in Western Sydney you have to forget all that. It’s about finding work that cuts across [preconceptions and forms] and involves the community. It’s a great challenge and opportunity for new music to look outside its shell.”

Community constellation

Eccles is particularly pleased with this festival’s community event: “At the Joan Sutherland Arts Centre in Penrith, there’ll be a whole day of community singing workshops. As well as amateur singers—of whatever range of experience—we’re inviting people who’ve never sung publicly before and, as the Aurora Chorus, they’ll all perform that night in the concert titled Aurora Chorealis. For them we’ve commissioned a new work by Paul Jarman, a really great choral director and composer who knows exactly how to pitch this approach to the people singing, and to the audience. They’ll all get a lot out of it: it’s new, it’s Australian, it’s been composed with that community in mind. It’s titled The Aurora Round, a round as in Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, but a lot cleverer than that.” A bit of a challenge? “Exactly, but it can be learned in one day and sung without a score, and will be sonically very interesting.”

In the course of the day Roland Peelman and Song Company will present two vocal installations the audience can wander through: “at 2pm Leah Barclay’s Transvergence (2011) and at 6pm Kate E Moore’s Uisce (2007) which will segue into the concert proper which features the Aurora Chorus and Song Company.”

This Aurora program is not as large nor quite as geographically far flung as previous festivals, simply because it was not successful in securing Arts NSW funding for 2014, as was the case, says Eccles with a number of new music applicants. However, Australia Council funding has meant the festival will still present a strong program spread across the west in Riverside Theatres, Parramatta and the Campbelltown, Blacktown and Joan Sutherland Arts Centres.

Radiant Stars

The opening night, presented by Aurora, Riverside and New Music Network, should certainly attract new music aficionados with a premiere from a leading Australian composer, Brian Howard, commissioned by Aurora. Howard, who has returned to Sydney after working overseas for a number of years, wrote, among other things, notable operas—Inner Voices (libretto Louis Nowra, 1979), Metamorphosis (Berkoff after Kafka), Whitsunday (Nowra, 1988) and Wide Sargasso Sea (Howard, 1997).

Howard’s new orchestral work is Voyage Through Radiant Stars. Eccles is awed, “It’s enormous, a 60-minute saxophone concerto. How often do you get a new 60-minute work in contemporary classical music? I’d love to see a symphony concert where this was the main work, instead of a token 12-minute new music work played first in the program or before interval. This is for a fairly large ensemble, 18 musicians—the Sydney Conservatorium Modern Music Ensemble. I heard their first rehearsal and I was really impressed. Alto-saxophonist James Nightingale (Chair of the New Music Network and member of Continuum Sax) is playing the solo part. It’s fantastic music, a little Stockhausen-esque in some ways, as in his solo wind pieces, but definitely Brian’s own language.”

The first half of the opening night concert has much to offer as well: “Ensemble Offspring playing Marcus Lindberg’s Ablauf (1983) for two massive bass drums and clarinet…I’ve seen it live and was bowled over. Song Company’s Roland Peelman is to play a piano piece, Sonolith, a world premiere by Turkish Australian composer Ekrem Mulayim who has written a musical transcription of the Declaration of Human Rights. The words are projected in real time so that it’s almost like the pianist is a typist.”

A didjeridu duet, an Aurora commission for Alex Pozniak from Aurora, has “considerable input from the players Mark Atkins and Gumeroy Newman who’s from Western Sydney. Hearing two didjeridus together is not something you experience very often.” The program also includes Xenakis’ challenging solo Rebonds (1987-89) played by Claire Edwardes. Eccles is keen that the first half of the concert is as fluid as possible, “so that the works can speak to each other” without re-setting of music stands and chairs.


Elsewhere in the program is Colourwheel, a Campbelltown Arts Centre commission which Aurora is co-presenting. It’s the creation of guitarist Jim Moginie performing with an ensemble of electric guitarists in his “exploration of colour theory in art and music in Kandinsky, Klee and others as well as Australia’s Roy de Maistre.”

Recorder player Alicia Crossley will be at Blacktown Arts Centre in a very distinctive program, Ecstatic Dances, collaborating with various artists including a work commissioned by Aurora from Paul Cutlan, Affirmations, for bass recorder, cello with effects and didjeridu. The concert takes its title from Ross Edwards’ work of the same name, which will also be performed in what Eccles describes as “a dance-inspired program.” There’ll also be a solo from cellist Ollie Miller and Melissa Farrow, principal flautist with the Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra, will play baroque flute alongside Alicia.”

Under open skies, Super Critical Mass (Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste, Janet McKay), who specialise in crowd music, will present their Aurora-commissioned new work for percussion to be performed in St Johns Park Parramatta on 30 April during the evening rush hour.

With a focused program built around commissions and premieres of exciting new works, James Eccles has curated a strong program with arts centres and musical partners. He’d liked to have had more on the program: “a lot of great ideas were pitched to me but we simply didn’t have the money.” There’s also no ‘big name’ overseas artist this year, he says, to “galvanise an audience, but we thought, let’s make this really about Australian artists and support them with the kind of opportunities they rarely get in arts festivals.”

Aurora has deservedly become an integral part of the Western Sydney cultural calendar and, like the vital arts centres, continues to develop audiences for and appreciation of Australian music of remarkable diversity. Let’s hope this achievement is recognised by Arts NSW and that Aurora Festival is granted the opportunity to thrive in 2016. In the meantime we ready ourselves to be awed by dazzling spectrum of creations from Australia’s brightest musicians in the 2014 Aurora Festival of Living Music.

2014 Aurora Festival of Living Music, Western Sydney, 30 April-3 May,

Check our extensive coverage of Aurora 2012

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 45

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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